It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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The Queen’s headscarves, models’ too skinny backs, and how men are like Homer Simpson were just a few of the topics Justine Picardie, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, fiction writer and biographer of Coco Chanel, discussed with Colin McDowell, Times and Business of Fashion contributor at the Victoria & Albert Museum to promote his latest book: The Anatomy of Fashion: Why we dress the way we do

As two representatives of a fashion world that’s often presented as cutthroat, it was refreshing to see two speakers who were both gifted and friendly. As Picardie introduced him, McDowell helped himself to some water and filled her glass. After the event, as he was signing books, she stayed in the room and talked to the line of people which had formed, answering questions about how to become a fashion journalist, a question she must have answered a hundred times before.

After hearing Lionel Shriver at the Soho Literary Festival, I was a bit weary at the idea of hearing two of my favourite fashion writers in real life. Picardie introduced McDowell as an “entertaining observer of fashion” in the midst of “a lot of bad fashion writing” with “a true understanding of the history of fashion”. This understanding was on full display throughout the talk as they went through dozens of images of people, commenting here on the significance of a hat, there the role of an epaulette. “Fashion alights on various erogenous zones of the body, including shoulders”, McDowell reminded the audience.

All the pictures were taken from The Anatomy of Fashion, a coffee-table book about the interaction between fashion and the body. McDowell explained that the idea came from the body, an under-explored yet constant presence in fashion. Acknowledging the fashion world’s fascination with young bodies, he explained he had become more and more interested in the topic as his own had become more and more decrepit getting him the first, and far from last, laughs of the evening.

Picardie and McDowell kicked of by talking about the head, lamenting the disappearance of the hat after World War II. Picardie, who has just updated her book Coco Chanel: the Legend and the Life, recalled that the French designer had started as a milliner and that, towards the end of her life, she was never seen without a hat, possibly because of the scars caused by a Swiss facelift that went awry.

Chanel was a recurrent theme throughout the talk. When McDowell claimed that no biographer had ever revealed all about her life, Picardie took mock offence, reminding him she had. Later on, when the discussion moved on to dresses, Picardie explained how subservient Chanel’s use of black had been. It wasn’t just the colour of mourning, seen across Europe on WWI widows, it was also what judges and hangmen wore, the colour of gravitas and uniforms. By mixing black dresses with white collars, an association Chanel picked up in the convent where she was raised, the designer made her wealthy customers resemble their maids. 

Chanel wasn’t the only public figure associated with black and hats, Jackie Kennedy – from JFK’s funeral to her love of pillbox hats – was also mentioned. For McDowell, the fact that Kennedy made the pillbox hat so iconic turned it into her own crown, meaning no one else at the time could wear it. To this day, a pillbox hat is shorthand for the First Lady’s style. 

As crowns go, you can’t find a better association nowadays than HRH Elizabeth II. Yet McDowell had selected a picture of the Queen wearing a Hermes headscarf. The monarch rides every morning with headscarves rather than a riding hat, apparently to the horror of her courtiers.  Both speakers took her action as a sign of freedom and subversion, the Queen’s very own brand of rebellion. 

Kennedy took quite a bit of advice from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, a fashion legend McDowell knew and qualified as “scary”. Speaking about Vreeland, he demonstrated his skills as a storyteller, talking for instance of the time she had told him any woman going shopping with her best friend was stupid. 

He also talked about a fashion editorial he had done in India about 20 years ago with Naomi Campbell. The editorial featured models in distressed jeans and worn-out tops, as was the fashion of the time. His disgust at the fact that “we all want to look like we’re pooh in the West” was palpable when he reminisced about the faces of the locals who had expected Campbell to turn up decked out as a princess.  

Vreeland wasn’t the only legendary editor McDowell got to know during his career. He also spoke warmly of Isabella Blow who, despite her lack of education, could capture the essence of a period. One of his main regrets about Blow seemed to be that she never got round to writing about fashion.

Agreeing with Picardie that a lot of fashion legend is based on lies, an issue both, as journalists, must be confronted with regularly, McDowell explained he never really believes designers who talk about how they remember their mother dressing to go to the ball as their first fashion emotion. But then building a world and selling is what fashion brands is all about. No reader, no customer wants the truth, just excitement. 

Although most of the talk focused on women’s fashion, McDowell has also included photographs of men and men’s style in his book. During his writing career, whilst exploring trends and fashion history, he has discovered that men don’t wear overt fashion and always put comfort first. “Men want to look like they just stepped out of The Simpsons” is how he summarised it. 

Posted at 6:30am and tagged with: victoria and albert museum, book review,.

Audrey Hepburn: Film and the creation of a style icon

This weekend, the Victoria & Albert Museum held an afternoon-long seminar on Audrey Hepburn’s cinematic style. Speakers gave papers on her fashion trajectory (Prof. Stella Bruzzi, Warwick University), the Cinderella motive across her movies and life (Dr. Rachel Moseley, Warwick University) and her relationship with Hubert de Givenchy (Drusilla Beyfus, Vogue on Hubert de Givenchy), mostly based on her early career. The below article is based on my amalgamated notes. 

Contrary to most Hepburn movies, this is a Cinderella story in reverse, where Princess Ann (Hepburn) goes around Rome incognito, alongside smitten journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). This was her first major role, and contains few costume changes. Ann spends most of her time in a simple shirt and a long pleated skirt, accessorised with a wide belt or a red scarf. This outfit was an instant success, partly because it encapsulates Hepburn’s true spirit and beauty and partly because it was easy for fans of the film to reproduce. Hepburn’s princess clothes, worn at the beginning and at the end of the film, tell the other half of Ann’s life: in the opening credits, a heavy, bejeweled dress establishes her as a princess burdened by protocol and the emotional weight of her duty. The dress worn at the end, also regal, but more comfortable, shows how her encounter with Bradley changed her. Edith Head, the Paramount costume designer who went on to collaborate with Hepburn on multiple motion pictures, explained that the actress influenced the wardrobe throughout. 

Sabrina marked the first collaboration between Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy. The actress had noticed him whilst working in Paris and was adamant her character should wear French fashion to showcase her transformation. Head created Sabrina’s outfits for the ‘before’ Paris scenes, and Givenchy the ones for after, including the unforgettable white dress Hepburn wears during the tennis court scene. The other Cinderella moment happens minutes earlier when Sabrina returns from France. The scene starts with Hepburn in a simple, sophisticated white robe, when she writes to her father, telling him how the City of Lights has changed her and warning him that she will be the most sophisticated woman at the local train station. She turns up in a black Givenchy suit and a turban. Clothes are used throughout to show Hepburn’s anxiety while navigating the class divide between her chauffeur father and the wealthy Larabee family, and illustrate how ill-at-ease she feels on either side. This film marked the first time the Sabrina neckline appeared on screen. Copied many times since, its authorship is disputed although Beyfus was adamant it was a Givenchy work. Head won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for her work in this movie but Givenchy was never credited

Funny Face followed the same Head/Givenchy split as Sabrina in terms of the before and after Jo Stockton’s transformation. Head also created the costumes for Maggie Prescott, editor of Quality magazine. Once again, Head is said to have resented her role since Jo is particularly frumpy in the early scenes of the movie. Hepburn goes on to wear Givenchy for a fashion shoot for Qualitythe running commentary mocks how contrived and superficial fashion can be, although the ‘normal’ girl does go fishing in an all-white and pink designer outfit. Fashion is also used to show that transformation through clothes is not a straightforward process with Jo the model being miserable and manhandled. Even during the first big reveal of her new style, in a memorable white evening gown with a pink cape, Jo looks sad and remote from the fashion world applauding her. 

Holly Golightly gave Hepburn her most iconic dress, the black Givenchy worn in the opening scene and still reproduced on everything from handbags to posters. The most complex of her characters, Holly has come to stand for sophistication while her flaws made her endearing and vulnerable. The sunglasses that accessorise her first appearance suggest her complex personality. Moseley credit’s Holly’s personal story and her desire to reinvent herself for her enduring appeal with women across the globe. 

Paris When it Sizzles (Richard Quine - 1964)

Clad in Givenchy throughout the film, Hepburn plays the girl next door but not as embodied by anybody else. Her beauty is not completely unattainable, but her clothes are. 

My Fair Lady (George Cukor - 1964)

One of Hepburn’s last movies before her married nine-year break, My Fair Lady is the film where the Cinderella motif comes full circle. It is also the one where it is at its most painful, with Eliza Doolittle submitted to daily bullying in the hands of Henry Higgins so he can win a bet against his friend. Here again, the change of clothes signifies a change of class. There is no real happy ending in this fairy tale since we are unsure what role Eliza is to play in Higgins life after the end credits roll out. 

Posted at 5:27am and tagged with: audrey hepburn, Classy film, victoria and albert museum,.

With Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton, the Victoria & Albert museum put together a one dimensional exhibition which, though charming and enticing, lacks depth. Five sections chronicle the collaboration between British photographer Beaton and three generations of Royals and introduce the visitor to his character and career. 

In real life, these beautiful, well-known photographs have a real pull and depth of detail but the chronological angle is rather flat. Curator Susanna Brown could have added analysis by showing how Beaton evolved the tradition of royal portraiture or how he’s influenced the current generation of royal photographers. Or she could have explored how his talent for, in Queen Mum’s own words, “producing” the royals as “really quite nice and real people”, choosing to go from romantic, formal poses displaying the traditional attributes of power to casual family portraits has changed the way we perceive the Windsors. Did Beaton open the communication can of worms or was he merely following and feeding the growing public appetite for seeing the Royals as one of us?

In a testament to Beaton’s talent for allowing a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes of royal life, it’s impossible not to want to know more about his creative process and the strategy behind his pictures. Besides a letter from the Queen Mum, there’s barely a royal correspondence in sight, leaving much of the relationship between the photographer and his subjects to imagination. The exhibition is told from the single, biased viewpoint of the gushing, sometimes anxious quotes from Beaton’s diaries on how well each and every shoot went. For a museum which has accustomed regulars to interactive exhibitions pulling from a range of media, the mere three short documentaries on display are disappointing.  Seeing in real life some of dresses, jewels and backdrops pictured would also have added relief to the portraits.

After its stint at the V&A, the exhibition will be touring the country and the Commonwealth to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee, in keeping with the original aim of the photographs, described by Brown as “PR, not family portraits”. This is an exhibition to the monarch’s glory, with no nuance. Fitting in a Jubilee year but it nonetheless leaves the visitor wanting more. Beaton depicts a vanilla, pre-Diana-Camilla royal family, a carefully orchestrated comm exercise difficult to swallow after years of tabloid headlines.

Pictures from the V&A website: Queen Elizabeth II with her Maids of Honour by Cecil Beaton (Gelatin silver print, 2 June 1953, Museum no. PH.1530-1987); Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Andrew by Cecil Beaton (Gelatin silver print, Buckingham Palace, March 1960, Museum no. PH.1806-1987)

Queen Elizabeth II and Cecil Beaton at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until 22 April 2012

Posted at 9:52am and tagged with: exhibition review, victoria and albert museum, Royal Family,.

With its characteristic blend of artefacts, multimedia and short, analytical captions, the Victoria & Albert Museum has staged an introduction to the world of Postmodernism. Covering architecture as well as music, interior design, ballet, and fashion, the show gets lost in a flurry of information but always falls back on its feet thanks to easy parallels between the curation and the movement itself. Just like Postmodernism, it lacks clear cohesion and some of its displays can be interpreted as either ironic or downright pointless and ugly (teapot that won’t pour tea anyone?).

Defined by exhibition co-curator Glenn Adamson as “defying definition but the perfect subject for an exhibition”, postmodernism

was visually thrilling, a multifaceted style that ranged from the colourful to the ruinous, the ludicrous to the luxurious. What it always maintained was a drastic departure from modernism’s utopian visions, which had been based on clarity and simplicity. […] Postmodernism, was more like a broken mirror, a reflecting surface made of many fragments. Its key principles were complexity and contradiction.

The exhibition succeeds in covering all aspects of the movement: artefacts from the 70s and 80s, including Memphis furniture and a Terry Jones-drawn cover of i-D, cover the “multifaceted” aspect; a film with Grace Jones, poster woman for the exhibition, and a reproduction of Hans Hollein’s gigantic Strada Novissima, The Presence of the Past, take care of the “visually thrilling”.

Organised chronologically around the underlying question of  Postmodernism’s failure, the exhibition displays in a single room Andy Warhol’s 1981 Dollar Sign, Jeff Koons’ 1986 stainless steel bust of Louis XIV and a yellow sequined Chanel jacket by Karl Lagerfeld.

Despite the 1990 cut-off point, it’s impossible not to draw parallels with current day design, be it the overbearing presence of brands and logos, art as the ultimate form of consumption or the current obsession with referencing past decades (in our case, the 1960s rather than Greek antiquity or the 18th century). Money still doesn’t mind if you say it’s evil. The midst of a financial crisis might have been the perfect time for such an exhibition underlying the ambivalence of Postmodern artists towards money, both wanting and rejecting it.

Because of this collusion between the postmodern years and ours, it’s difficult to see the exhibition objectively. Introducing any design current to the museum is no easy feast  and the V&A was brave enough to stage the first extensive show on the topic. It will deserve many more, once we, as a society, have sorted out our feelings towards the reactionary postmodernist message.

Postmodernism Style and Subversion 1970-1990 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 15 January 2012. Tickets from £8

Images: Grace Jones maternity dress, 1979. Photo: Jean-Paul Goude; Hans Hollein’s facade for the Venice Biennale in 1980. Biennale of Architecture, Venice from The Daily Telegraph; Protect me from what I Want, Holzer

Posted at 10:02am and tagged with: exhibition review, karl lagerfeld, Postmodernism, art, Victoria and Albert museum,.